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Monday, July 23, 2012

Experience Is The Best Teacher

from Howard Marks





The old University of Bologne (founded 1088) created the first academic charter ensuring academic freedom within its boundaries. Since then, the university as we know it has come to mean any institution of higher education generally focused upon the rigorous learning of complex areas of study, like syntactic structures of Creole languages or the intersection of metaphysics and particle physics. All of this is well and good, and above all necessary (for where would our society be without poetry), but perhaps the university has been steering too many students towards the books and away from the real world.

When it comes right down to it, a university is better off creating entrepreneurs than anything else. To successfully run a university of any size (from massive ASU – 59,000 students – to Lilliputian in comparison, Harvard – under 8,000 undergrad) requires constant donations from its alums to pay for the necessary costs of sports teams, professors, grounds and cleaning up after an army of young adults. The government grants received by a university, while hefty, aren’t large enough to pay for everything, and despite their steep admissions costs (Harvard full-freight clocked in at $55,000 for a year), a university is largely dependant upon its alums to help pay for everything. The more successful the students are, the more successful the university becomes. Why, then, are more students not being funneled into the world of the entrepreneur?

Every university has some sort of employment program or features on-campus recruitment fairs from top companies that have good relationships with the university. Universities are supposed to ensure their students come out educated and prepared for their careers. Still, should a university prepare its students for jobs as employees of large companies, or should a university take it upon itself to ensure that its students are as successful as possible? Should a university prepare its students to have a life, which we can all do at some point or another, or take a risk? Frankly, the reward for the student and the university are far greater if the university supports the student’s risk.

This ideology is catching on in the best institutions of higher education in the country. Both Stanford and Harvard have in-house entrepreneur accelerators. UCLA has been changing their culture to be more entrepreneurial and USC has started running entrepreneurial competitions with prizes between $50,000 and $100,000. It is clear, to the top universities in the country that the risk is worth the extra capital.

But if there is one career that universities need to start pushing more, it is computer science. For decades, Stanford’s number one major was History, and then it was Economics for years. Now, Stanford’s #1 major is computer science, and large companies and startups are starting to take notice. Even the New York Times recently published an article about the power of the University of Washington computer science program amongst tech startups in the Los Angeles and San Francisco bay area. Knowing how to code means you know how to make something that already exists technologically accessible and have suddenly created a new market. Clearly, the best way for our universities to prepare our students for tomorrow is by equipping them with skills in entrepreneurship and computer science, today.

The more successful entrepreneurially minded alums that graduate from the university, the better the reputation of the university. The cycle continues and both the students and the institution are better off for it. Learning for the sake of learning is important, and the skills gathered through the pursuit of knowledge are invaluable to every walk of life, but universities are better off telling their students to strike out on their own rather than work for someone else. It’s already started happening in post-graduate studies: now, more MBAs go to startups over consulting positions.

Howard Marks is co-chair of startup accelerator StartEngine, and co-founder of Activision, and is a serial entrepreneur.


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